An American Red State and Latinized Banana Republic in the Asia: Humoring the Philippine Nation-State

Lisandro Claudio

manilareview gdanico ube

Artwork by Grace Danico

Filipinos love America more than Americans. Just one of the many peculiarities of a nation state that cannot be placed in neat postcolonial boxes

Progressive Filipino academics are used to entertaining revolutionary tourists. The country, after all, has the longest standing Maoist insurrection in the world, proving that—for a ragtag group of aging peasants hiding amid the sugar cane in an ever-shrinking countryside—history has not ended, and that the 1960s can be resuscitated. As America’s only former colony, the Philippines is fertile ground for those who wish to emphasize the tenacity of US neo-imperialism. Despite the ascendance of Chinese expansionism in Asia, they insist that Filipinos should see the bigger picture. For,as any proper Western leftist knows, America—the contemporary embodiment of Europe’s imperial sins—has always been the great Satan.

 In the small circles of Manila intellectuals, it is not uncommon to meet a white artist, attempting to interrogate the logistics of Western expansion through a practice grounded in the struggles of the global south. This person is usually a fellow traveler and may, at times, be found drinking with comrades in a small suburban area close to our “radical” and “nationalist” state university. For those of us who study the Philippine Left, there are journal articles by Northern academics glorifying “our” Communist struggle against US imperialism. I once read a piece by a scholar who claimed that the Maoist revolution was thriving in my father’s home province of Samar. The writer had never been to Samar, and based his contention on propaganda material from the official Maoist newsletter (I quickly discovered the folly of this revolutionary optimism when I visited the province last year and discovered that the Communists had been eradicated by the murderous anti-insurgency campaign by General Jovito Palparan). Hearing about this, a fellow historian of the Philippine Left once explained that “the Philippine revolution thrives outside the Philippines.” Those back “home” had yet to receive the memo.

 Last year, a friend and I were drinking stale American drip coffee in an American-style diner in Ermita, a Manila district destroyed by American soldiers in World War 2. A man wearing a Che shirt and a Mao hat began to chat us up. I forget what the initial pleasantries consisted of, but he eventually started telling us how much he hated his American passport. “I identify more with Brazil,” he explained, “because I’m so ashamed of what America has done to your country and other countries like it.” Fair enough. It was indeed true that American colonizers killed hundreds and thousands of Filipinos in the brutal Filipino-American war of 1898. I nodded as the “Brazilian” continued with his litany of American atrocities, from the rape of Filipinas in Cold War-era bases to the war on terror being waged in Mindanao.

“Which is why you should all support the Communist Party,” he concluded. I stopped nodding.

After the nth panegyric for our domestic Stalinists, I had turned my torso to my friend, while she stared at the dregs in her empty cup. The Brazilian comrade asked his first question: “So what do you do anyway?”’

“I am an academic historian and specialize in the Philippine Left.”

 His posture deflated, and I was happy to end the conversation there. I was too tired to tell him about the Communist Party’s violent internal purges. I was too tired to tell him about how the party’s New People’s Army serves as a death squad for a local political warlord in Mindanao. I was too tired to tell him how the Communists murder peasant members of my own social democratic party. I was too tired to tell him that almost five years ago, the Maoists placed themselves in an electoral coalition with the family of Ferdinand Marcos. And I was too tired to tell him that the comrades walk around with pictures of Comrade Stalin every May Day.

We were about to leave. But not before I asked the comrade a final question: “What are you doing here anyway? Are you part of a solidarity network?”

“No, I just really love the girls in the Philippines; they are the friendliest. That’s why I’m here every year. ”

 

II.

 In his books The Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt and The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, the French “new philosopher” Pascal Bruckner excoriates the patronizing Western gaze directed at Third World struggles. Bruckner, possibly because of his relative lack of celebrity in America, is never discussed in the Philippines. But though his polemics will undoubtedly strike Filipino anti-colonial nationalists and their Western sympathizers as reactionary, his views may surface “progressive orientalisms" (my term), which cannot be revealed by the tools of politically correct American cultural studies or culturally relative ethnography. At the very least, Bruckner might explain the behavior of my Brazilian comrade.

From the purview of Third Worldists, Bruckner explains, the struggles of poor countries are homogenously glorious, and are assaults on a European culture that the guilty Western progressive judges as violent and colonial. But behind this admiration is a reproduction of old-fashioned ethnocentrism. Bruckner notes in The Tears of the White Man:

…[T]he worship of differentness presupposes what it will consist of, and that Western intellectuals are falling back into ethnocentrism at the very moment they think they have left it behind. There is no impartiality in the search for living examples, because we ourselves set forth the values we propose to find among peoples at the other ends of the earth. The passionate defense of primitive societies is really nothing but a way of judging them and ourselves, by means of prejudices of our own frame of reference. Whereas in the old days, people complained of their barbarity, today they gush about their wonderful symmetry, but the approach is really the same, because the starting point is still the Western way of life.

Elsewhere in the book, Bruckner adds that “The only known societies that seem worthy are those that contradict our values.”

 And there lies the rub for the Philippines, because, alas, Filipinos tend to affirm the West rather than negate it. In the mid 20th century, Filipino politicians were notorious for denying that their country was part of Asia, viewing it instead as an extension of the West. In the Bandung conference of 1955, the Filipino representative,

Carlos P. Romulo (a future president of the UN general assembly) pushed to expand the conference’s notion of colonialism to include Communist expansionism. Whereas both leftwing and conservative historiography view Bandung as an “assault on the West,” many forget that Romulo, along with Sri Lanka’s Sir John Kotelawala, made impassioned arguments in favor of human rights, liberalism, and anti-Communism. Both of them declared not only solidarity for the colonized of Asia and Africa, but also of Eastern Europe. And it was because of their intransigence that the communiqué of Bandung states that it opposes “all forms of colonialism.” Many, including India’s Nehru, had assumed that colonialism had only one form, namely Western. It took the pro-American Filipino to broaden the terms of debate.

Reading Bruckner has allowed me to revisit many of the questions I’ve asked about the Philippines over the years. Why do a low number of American Southeast Asianists study the Philippines compared to Indonesia and Vietnam? Why don’t we get enough attention from even the progressives of the colonial metropole? Is it because we love their country so much and want to be like them?

Why do the few films about the Philippines that become popular in the West almost always depict redemption amid urban blight (so called poverty porn)? Is it because our economic failure—hinting at the failure of our modernity—is our primary charm? Lino Brocka is dead, but we have yet to bury him.Why do novels about the Philippines that become popular in the West always have an impulse to latinize (e.g. Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters)? Is it because imagining Castilian speakers in Asia is more intriguing than imagining call center workers servicing American consumers, speaking in fake Midwestern accents? The nth representation of mestizo Forbes Park konyo may tickle Western readers who look for Latin America in Southeast Asia, but what about the Chinese elite who now vastly outnumber the Kastilaloys?

With a mix of affectionate bemusement and detached irony, I see the Philippines as a hybrid between a Third World banana republic and an American red state. The reasons for the former characterization are obvious: The collapse of the brutal Marcos regime in 1986 may have restored democracy, but it occasioned a recapturing of the state by a multi-headed hydra of a national oligarchy. But a few facts are needed to illustrate the latter categorization:

1. We were only one of three countries who would have voted for McCain over Obama—the other two being Georgia and, of course, Israel. (As an aside, the Israeli embassy loves Filipinos, not only because we send the country top-quality healthcare workers, but also because many of us, being staunch Catholics, believe in the biblical basis of Zionism.)

2. We are the only country in the world where divorce is still illegal. And as a “Catholic” country, we, of course, will never even debate the issue of abortion. Asking the state to distribute condoms in healthcare centers took the women’s movement 15 years.

3. We think that The Eagles were a proper rock band.

So I am rarely surprised when second generation Filipino Americans complain about their parents voting Republican. Filipinos are anti tax (because tax collectors are corrupt in the Philippines, so they must be corrupt elsewhere); they are anti-immigration (because we worked hard to get into this country, dammit! And we’re more Americanized, so we deserve to be here!); and they believe in “family values” (because that’s what being Catholic is all about!).

 Bruckner’s point is that any country will eventually confound, even disappoint, a Third Worldist, hippy, or modern orientalist, trying to reduce postcolonial life into a narrative of the oppressed. But I think something about the Philippines’ relationship to America, its venerated former colonial master, makes it more confounding.

 

III.

Last year, the Pew Research Center released data from its global  attitudes project, ranking countries in terms of how favorably they viewed the American people. The US came in second, and the Philippines ranked first. The Philippines also had the most favorable view of the US as a state, with Americans ranking only fourth. Republicans who wish to see American nationalism rekindled should visit the Philippines.

The survey also revealed that Filipinos had high levels of confidence in both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. 87% of Filipinos have confidence in the US president, while only 57% of Americans share their view (remember this is the country that would not have voted for Obama). Regarding foreign policy, Filipinos agreed with US foreign policy decisions, except for the use of drones.

The survey confirmed what I and many of my comrades on the social democratic left already knew. Like all leftwing groups in the Philippines, my social democratic party, Akbayan, enjoys the occasional protest before the American embassy. In these protests, we are routinely shouted at and cursed by pro-American jeepney drivers, who view anti-imperial activists as nuisances—more effective in generating traffic than affecting change. How comforting it must have been for my comrades when they started protesting in front of the Chinese embassy two years ago after that country’s expansionist incursions into the Spratly islands. The jeepney drivers were finally on our side. And we were happy to hear their cheers—unsurprising, since the Pew survey shows that most Filipinos view China unfavorably.

One can imagine how the various ways various sub-genres of progressive intellectuals grapple with the Americaphilia of the Filipino working class. The “Brazilian” comrade thought we Filipinos merely needed to meet more people like him, who, having been in the belly of the beast, knows how evil empire really is. One can also imagine Filipino-American returnees, visiting the Philippines after having read their fair share of Chomsky or Zinn, or, for the less lucid, Zizek. After learning about multi-cultural alienation either in political praxis or the comfort of a West Coast ethnic studies class, they may be shocked to discover that their compatriots do not share their ambivalent relationship with America. But this shock soon fades, and the Filipino-American realizes that being an “Am boy” in Manila accords him a cultural cache he never had in Daly City. It is thus that the leftwing Filipino-American transmogrifies into an upper class Manileño party animal.

A lazy way to wish away pro-Americanism is through the passing reference to colonial mentality—a term that became a cliché in the radical ‘70s, when activists directed most of their passions towards dismantling the “US-Marcos dictatorship.” American education, media, and political power, so argues the likes of Renato Constantino, has “mis-educated” Filipinos, producing “un-Filipino Filipinos”—our veritable equivalent of the Frantz Fanon’s “white mask.”

But the theory is patronizing, and views the masses as dupes. When the claim is mouthed by Maoists, whose political work is premised on a “mass line” of peasant wisdom, it becomes a contradiction, more facile than dialectical.

 The Filipino relationship with empire has as much to do with the contradictions of the state as it does with the mainstreaming of imperial fantasies. To dismiss America-worship as the mere success of Hollywood or neocolonialism elides a complex history of Philippine state formation. One area of interest in this respect is Mindanao. When the Philippines was an American colony, the colonial government administered Muslim Mindanao separately, thus shielding the island from the elite state-formation occurring in Manila. Until today many Moros believe that it is the US that will protect them from Filipino imperialism. This publication’s Editor-at-Large recalls speaking to a Moro elder who still hopes that the early 20th century anti-Filipino governor general, Leonard Wood (long dead and buried), will one day became US president and free his people from the Filipinos. He also tells the story of how leaders from the province of Maguindanao refuse to even stand for the Philippine national anthem, but sing the Star Spangled Banner with gusto. Today, these so-called victims of the war on terror routinely clamor for American troops to protect them from the human rights violations of the Philippine army. The upland peoples of the Cordillera region share a similar history with Mindanao, and they nourish their relationship with “empire” through the country’s only country radio music station and by wearing cowboy boots.

In the 1990s, postcolonial academics would have celebrated these phenomena as makers of radical “hybrity” or evidence of “a hidden transcript of resistance.” But with the sobriety that comes after the eclipse of discursive politics, the phenomenon may be seen more clearly as simple admiration.

 Many Filipinos, not just in Mindanao and the Cordillera, admire America for the simple reason that it offers the hope of a better life—one always denied them by our elite-driven banana republic. For how evil can American empire be when, for many Overseas Filipino Workers, it remains the refuge that will allow them to escape the poverty and classism of a society dominated by an oligarchy? None of this is to say that the old bogeymen of the Left are not problems; no doubt, for instance, the IMF crippled the Philippine economy in the 1990s. But the latent “reaction”—for lack of a better term—in the Philippines serves as a heuristic. And we can use it to ask new questions:

1. What happens when we reverse the telescope of domination, and begin with internal power as opposed to outside? The study of the global south and developed world traditionally begins with large concepts and begins with Western domination. But Bruckner asks, what about the domestic elite? Are they not, at times, more vile than the imperialist?

2. What is the role of Western modernity in the very constitution of the global south? Postcolonial academics have been provincializing Europe for too long a time. Now it may be time to ask: what may the global south appropriate from the Western discourses of liberalism and even socialism?

3. What happens when the subject of studying the global south become the non-revolutionaries—those who do not mimic the old struggling classes of before, but are instead groups in flux, with interests so diverse as to preclude definitive political projects? Are there masses without a cause? And what politics emerges from this inchoateness?

 What about the jeepney driver who loves America and hates China? Does he have a role in narrating our nation?